To Write Forgiveness in the Dust
“They said this to test him, because they wanted a reason to bring an accusation against him.
Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground with his finger.” —John 8:6
Jo Forrest and I are preaching from the Gospel of John this summer, and we’re already on sermon #3. We’re half way through, but it seems as if we’ve hardly started. The gospel of John is, like the other three gospels, a retelling of Jesus’ life and ministry, death, and resurrection. But whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke are woven together with many common strands, containing stories that often overlap word-for-word, John has much to say that is unique: it is full of stories that are not found in the other three gospels.
Maybe because of its uniqueness, Martin Luther says that “John’s gospel is the one, fine, true gospel,” and John Calvin says, “the Gospel of John is key to understanding the rest.” So read it. It’s about twenty-thousand words in total: shorter than most Shakespeare plays. It is evocative, with short, familiar stories strewn throughout: The Woman at the Well, The Feeding of the Five Thousand, Jesus Walking on Water. Plus, it contains enough healings and courtroom dramas to get your ER, House, CSI, and Law & Order fix for the month.
Today’s story is of the courtroom variety: Jesus is being asked to act as judge in a tricky case. Does Jesus have the authority to judge? Can Jesus act with wisdom and grace? Is Jesus’ life on the line, too? Let us listen for God’s grace in our own lives and in our own world, as Jesus writes in the dust.
They each went to their own homes, and Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he returned to the temple. All the people gathered around him, and he sat down and taught them. The legal experts and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery. Placing her in the center of the group, they said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone women like this. What do you say?” They said this to test him, because they wanted a reason to bring an accusation against him. Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground with his finger. They continued to question him, so he stood up and replied, “Whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone.” Bending down again, he wrote on the ground. Those who heard him went away, one by one, beginning with the elders. Finally, only Jesus and the woman were left in the middle of the crowd. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Is there no one to condemn you?” She said, “No one, sir.” Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore.”
Holy God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be holy and acceptable to you, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Sigurd Olsen has been deemed the Father of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota where I just spent a week with some of this church’s staggeringly strong, strikingly spiritual 14-year-olds. Sigurd Olsen says, “I go into the wilderness to iron out the wrinkles in my soul.”
“I go into the wilderness to iron out the wrinkles in my soul.” I have found his words to ring true, but it takes a few days. The wrinkles, caused by the rush of the city and the push of the suburbs, take time to melt away. But this year, I can practically pinpoint on a map the moment when the wilderness took its holy toll on my soul—a moment so synchronized with the rest of my group that I bet you could hear it back here in Illinois.
Let me explain. On Tuesday afternoon, last week, near the end of an eleven-mile paddle, just as we were starting to look for a place to camp for the night, all three of our canoes broke out into song. Each boat was singing its own song: we weren’t that synchronized. None of us were particularly in tune, but when the wrinkles begin to disappear from your soul, so to speak, tone-deafness is no longer one of your worries. We sang indiscriminately, blanketing the lake with a wholesome joy that could not be contained.
Searching our memories for a song all of us could sing, my canoe settled on “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” We started with the classic lines:
He’s got the itty bitty babies in his hands…
he’s got the brothers and the sisters in his hands…
and (as is the favorite of this year’s preschoolers)
he’s got the puppies and the kitties in his hands.
But then, as if by divine guidance, we settled into our own rendition of the song.
He’s got the lakes and the rivers, in his hands…
he’s got the eagles and the loons in his hands…
he’s got the itchy mosquitoes in his hands…
he’s got the whole world in his hands.
In this song that imagines Jesus with the whole world in his hands, we took impromptu turn after impromptu turn offering up every piece of God’s wild world we could think of. Every wrinkle in our soul settled out as we sang and sang and sang.
This song gives Jesus a cosmic scope: the whole world is in his hands. But then the song breaks it down, giving the immeasurable, infinite boundlessness of the world a more tangible scope. Itty bitty babies take their place at the global stage. Puppies and kitties are given equal footing with brothers and sisters. All God’s critters got a place in the choir. It is a protective song: a song that brings comfort even to the youngest people of faith among us, a song that is simple enough for children to understand, yet big enough to hold onto an echo of truth for those of us who are growing up beyond our childish faith.
But today’s story is far from childish: it is brutish and cruel, it is damning and embarrassing. How would this woman feel, being dragged from whatever dark corner of the night into the early morning public sphere, only to be brought before Jesus? Did she already know Jesus? Had she heard he would be teaching in Jerusalem? Did she know he was in town, too, for the harvest festival? And what of her lover? Why had he escaped condemnation? Had she helped him run away? Or was he given a pass by the religious authorities? Or was he quicker to escape? There is so much we don’t know.
And we aren’t the first ones to be made uncomfortable by the unanswered questions of this text. This story has long been controversial, and in fact, was edited out of many early biblical manuscripts. It is a story that doesn’t get a permanent home in the gospel of John until centuries after Jesus bends down to write in the sand. Some speculate it is because it portrays such lenient punishment for adultery; the earliest Christian communities kept close tabs on each other’s ethical mishaps, and the freedom Jesus offered to this unnamed woman would have been too altruistic, some think, for the early church. What do you think? Is it too indulgent? Should Jesus have found an alternative punishment for her?
The ancient sacred legal code, passed down generation after generation, does say that if you do the crime, you do the time, but in this case, the punishment is terminal. Among the brutish biblical decrees, both the man and the woman caught in adultery may be stoned to death according to Leviticus 20. She could have been punished to the full extent of the law.
As I took time to consider this week’s story, about a woman possibly about to be stoned to death, I couldn’t help but think of this children’s song. He’s got this woman caught in adultery, in his hands. And this time, it is metaphorical exercise in imagining Jesus on a cosmic level: this woman’s life is on the line, and the legal experts and religious leaders have literally put her life in his hands.
And here’s the twist, the turn, the surprise, to me anyway: Jesus’ life is also caught up in hers. Jesus’ life is at risk, just as much as this woman’s life is at risk. Not just because of his physical proximity to her as a potentially stone-throwing crowd looks on, but because Jesus’ answer to this legal quandary could become, for him, a life-or-death matter.
The religious leadership seeks to kill Jesus. We know this, as twenty-first-century Christians. We know the end of the story. We know that, in the end, the religious leadership does trap Jesus, does seek the death penalty for him, does try him for sedition, for claiming to be who he is. But this is just chapter 8, we’re still at the beginning here, Jesus isn’t arrested until chapter 18. But already, Jesus’ life is on the line. His response, in this moment, will doom or deliver both him and her.
This summer, I met a man who had a semicolon tattooed on the inside of his wrist: it was huge in my estimation, the size of a playing card. It was a rich inky black against his pale freckled skin. I immediately recognized the symbol: a semicolon is that place in a sentence where the author has the chance to stop a sentence with a period, but chooses not to. A semi-colon is a reminder to pause and then keep going.
I recognized the symbol, not just because it is a character on my keyboard, a punctuation mark that finds its way into our written exchange, but because the symbol is part of a movement called the Semicolon Project. You can look it up. It is dedicated to “presenting hope and love for those who are struggling with mental illness, suicide, addiction, and self-injury.” The semicolon project claims: your life is not over. If the sentence is your life, do not choose a period when you can choose a semicolon.
Without pause, I knew that this man with the inky tattoo had been marked by suicide. I didn’t know if his tattoo was in honor of someone he loved, or if it was a mark of encouragement for his own rocky journey, but I knew enough to ask about his tattoo with delicacy, ready for whatever story might come.
In today’s story, Jesus handed out a semicolon. Maybe that’s what Jesus wrote in the sand. A simple punctuation mark. It looked as if this woman’s life was over. Where the world saw a period, Jesus placed a semicolon. Jesus chooses life: for her and for him. In fact, one person pointed out that even when Jesus could predict his own imminent death, he was not choosing to die, but risk choosing to “persist in love.”
Where does our world need a semicolon? Where does our world need someone to risk and persist in love? It is a radical proposition, yes? In today’s story, it is not just radical but a dire proposition, a life or death kind of act.
Do we need someone to persist in love on the campaign trail?
Do we need someone to persist in love at the immigration offices?
In the newsrooms?
Do we need someone to persist in love in the hallways of our schools,
as classrooms open up, and social pressures return?
Do we need someone to persist in love in the backrooms of Wall Street?
Or in the boardrooms of multinational corporations?
Where do we need someone to persist in love?
When we sing “He’s got the whole world in his hands” we’re watching for God-in-Jesus to persist in love on our behalf. When we sing “He’s got the whole world in his hands” we’re watching for God-in-Jesus to wrap us up in the mutual love for life—to invite us into a renewed mutual love for life, a love for neighbor, a love for enemy, a love for the vulnerable people of this world who happen across our path and in being with us make us mutually vulnerable.
In this story, I find that Jesus offers a hope that the whole world might be offered a semicolon, that the vulnerable well-being of one might “get caught up all willy-nilly” in the vulnerable well-being of all.
There is so much more to consider here in this story: it is rich with the image of Jesus bent over writing some semblance of forgiveness, not in stone, but in the dust and dirt that will so soon vanish with the crowd. It is a story, rich with wondering how the woman’s life proceeded after this encounter with Jesus—was she changed? Could she live up to the challenge to “go and sin no more”? And, for that matter, can any of us live up to that challenge? It is a story, rich with pondering how our lives might be if Jesus were the judge on the day we were caught, we were accused, we were condemned. It is a story, rich with warmth, a story that makes me wonder and hope.
In this story, I wonder if the forgiveness Jesus made known might be enough for us.
…If it might be enough for us, when we are the ones in need of forgiveness.
…If it might be enough for us, when we are the ones who need to forgive.
…If it might be enough for us, when we are the ones who would rather condemn.
…If it might be enough for us, when we find ourselves caught up in the routine application of established law, instead of the life-transforming, life-renewing, life-saving semi-colon-sized forgiveness that Jesus offers.
For now, even as we ponder, I pray that whatever Jesus wrote in the dust—the forgiveness that was made known there—in the midst of the dusty city—might be enough, for us to model, and for us to receive. For it gives us a glimpse into the hidden truth that whether in the wilderness or in the wilds of urban life, Jesus advocates on our behalf.
Whether at our kitchen table or on the global stage, Jesus teaches us to write forgiveness again across the dusty road. There is, as always, so much more to ponder, but for now, as we go out into the blessings and struggles of this week:
might we seek the semicolon-life,
might we seek the mutual love for life,
might we seek to allow our well-being
to get caught up all willy-nilly
in the vulnerable well-being of all.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.